The memory of Leonel A. Rondon is enshrined in a couple of public places in his hometown. There’s the square in his old neighborhood, at Jackson and Chestnut streets in Lawrence, dedicated a year after his death. At his old school, the Phoenix Academy charter, there’s an art room and a mural depicting the Merrimack River and old Ayer Mill that were created with him in mind.
Another tribute to Rondon came last week night, miles away from the Merrimack Valley, when the U.S. Senate passed a massive year-end spending bill sent over by the House. Tucked deep inside the tomb of a bill — on Page 2,705 of 5,593 — appeared the “Leonel Rondon Pipeline Safety Act.” Spanning more than 17 pages, it spelled out safety and emergency procedures that utilities must follow in planning and carrying out natural gas line work.
The law long advocated by the state’s congressional delegation seeks to avoid the kind of disaster that happened Sept. 13, 2018, after a routine upgrade of gas lines in south Lawrence led to an unprecedented swelling of pressure through the utility serving not only Lawrence but Andover and North Andover.
The bill mandates that utilities keep accurate, updated maps of their infrastructure, which must now include regulator stations designed to keep the lines from becoming overpressurized. It requires that experienced personnel, if not professionally licensed engineers, sign off on construction plans before work is done on gas lines. Workers with similar qualifications must oversee the work, to monitor the gas pressure and promptly shut down the system in case of emergency. The bill does allow utilities to automate that control, so long as they also build in the ability to remotely or automatically switch off the gas.
The bill also calls for utilities to create emergency protocols, specifically when it comes to communicating with first responders, local officials and the public.
A piece of legislation, even with Rondon’s name across the top, may not have the emotional impact of a public painting or ceremony to dedicate a street corner. But its reach into the everyday operations and business practices of gas utilities is far broader than anything that bears his name so far.
One wonders if the now-defunct Columbia Gas of Massachusetts had been following those procedures on Sept. 13, 2018, if the death of an 18-year-old man and the injuries suffered by nearly two dozen others could have been avoided? Would it have saved five houses from being destroyed and 126 homes and businesses from being damaged? Might it have prevented the months of rebuilding and restoration, of negotiation and litigation, that followed in the aftermath?
Certainly, all of those things would’ve been far less likely to occur. And it is a credit to Massachusetts Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, and to the region’s two members of Congress, Reps. Lori Trahan and Seth Moulton, that they didn’t let this legislation fade into the background and memory of Capitol Hill long after what happened in the Merrimack Valley was no longer top of mind.
A press release issued last week quoted most of those immediately involved in the bill’s passage. In it, Trahan noted the importance of applying lessons from the gas disaster, following a template created by the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation. “For too long, outdated and insufficient safety regulations have failed the communities they were supposed to protect,” she said, adding that the gas safety bill will help “ensure that no community ever has to experience this type of terrible devastation again.”
A little more than two years and three months ago, Rondon had just gotten his driver’s license. He was driving a Honda CRV with a couple of friends inside and had just pulled into their driveway at 35 Chickering St. in Lawrence when a freak explosion sent the house’s chimney toppling onto the car.
In the time since, Rondon’s family, friends and community have worked to ensure that the last moments of his life were not what defined it. Instead, they’ve asked that people reflect on the too-short life of a happy teenager who cared deeply about those around him, liked to play with the kids in Phoenix Academy’s day care center, dreamed of someday opening his own club, and worked toward his graduation.
Now, Rondon also can be remembered for standards that, once implemented, will ensure the safety and protection of teenagers, children and adults not just in his hometown but throughout the United States.